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A bridge's structural efficiency may be considered to be the ratio of load carried to bridge mass, given a specific set of material types. In one common challenge students are divided into groups and given a quantity of wood sticks, a distance to span, and glue, and then asked to construct a bridge that will be tested to destruction by the progressive addition of load at the center of the span. The bridge taking the greatest load is by this test the most structurally efficient. A more refined measure for this exercise is to weigh the completed bridge rather than measure against a fixed quantity of materials provided and determine the multiple of this weight that the bridge can carry, a test that emphasizes economy of materials and efficient glue joints.

A bridge's economic efficiency will be site and traffic dependent, the ratio of savings by having a bridge (instead of, for example, a ferry, or a longer road route) compared to its cost. The lifetime cost is composed of materials, labor, machinery, engineering, cost of money, insurance, maintenance, refurbishment, and ultimately, demolition and associated disposal, recycling, and replacement, less the value of scrap and reuse of components. Bridges employing only compression are relatively inefficient structurally, but may be highly cost efficient where suitable materials are available near the site and the cost of labor is low. For medium spans, trusses or box beams are usually most economical, while in some cases, the appearance of the bridge may be more important than its cost efficiency. The longest spans usually require suspension bridges.


The first bridges appeared in ancient times. They were made by nature itself — as simple as a log fallen across a river or stones in the water. The first bridges made by humans were probably spans of cut wooden logs or planks and eventually stones, using a simple support and cross-girder arrangement. Some early Americans used trees or bamboo poles to get from one place to another across the water. Long reeds or other harvested fibers were woven together to form a connective rope which was used in early bridges.

The Arkadiko Bridge is one of four Mycenaean arch bridges and part of a former network of roads in the Peloponnese, in Greece. Dating to the Greek Bronze Age (13th century BC), it is one of the oldest arch bridges still in existence and use. Several intact (= not damaged) arched stone bridges from the Hellenistic era can be found in the Peloponnese in southern Greece.

The greatest bridge builders of antiquity were the ancient Romans. The Romans built arch bridges and aqueducts that could stand in conditions that would damage or destroy earlier designs. Some stand today. An example is the Alcántara Bridge, built over the river Tagus, in Spain. The Romans also used cement, which reduced the variation of strength found in natural stone. One type of cement, called pozzolana, consisted of water, lime, sand, and volcanic rock. Brick and mortar (= a mixture of cement, sand and water) bridges were built after the Roman era, as the technology for cement was lost then later rediscovered.

The Arthashastra of Kautilya mentions the construction of dams and bridges. A Mauryan bridge near Girnar was surveyed by James Princep. The bridge was swept away during a flood, and later repaired by Puspagupta, the chief architect of emperor Chandragupta I. The bridge also fell under the care of the Yavana Tushaspa, and the Satrap Rudra Daman. The use of stronger bridges using plaited bamboo and iron chain was visible in India by about the 4th century. A number of bridges, both for military and commercial purposes, were constructed by the Mughal administration in India.

Although large Chinese bridges of wooden construction existed at the time of the Warring States, the oldest surviving stone bridge in China is the Zhaozhou Bridge, built from 595 to 605 AD during the Sui Dynasty. This bridge is also historically significant as it is the world's oldest open-spandrel stone segmental arch bridge. European segmental arch bridges date back to at least the Alconétar Bridge (approximately 2nd century AD), while the enormous Roman era Trajan's Bridge (105 AD) featured open-spandrel segmental arches in wooden construction.

Rope bridges, a simple type of suspension bridge, were used by the Inca civilization in the Andes mountains of South America, just prior to European colonization in the 1500s.

During the 18th century there were many innovations in the design of timber bridges by Hans Ulrich, Johannes Grubenmann, and others. The first book on bridge engineering was written by Hubert Gautier in 1716. A major breakthrough in bridge technology came with the erection of the Iron Bridge in Coalbrookdale, England in 1779. It used cast iron for the first time as arches to cross the river Severn.

With the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, truss systems of wrought iron were developed for larger bridges, but iron did not have the tensile strength to support large loads. With the advent of steel, which has a high tensile strength, much larger bridges were built, many using the ideas of Gustave Eiffel.

In 1927 welding pioneer Stefan Bryła designed the first welded road bridge in the world which was later built across the river Słudwia Maurzyce near Łowicz, Poland in 1929. In 1995, the American Welding Society presented the Historic Welded Structure Award for the bridge to Poland.


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